The first thing that draws your eye in the handsome set of a posh New York apartment at the 59E59 theater is the empty wheelchair.
A slim, straight-backed Hershey Felder addresses an invisible “curmudgeon” in the chair, urging him to welcome the carolers who appear at his door every Christmas. He urges him to tell them the stories behind the songs he has written. Imagining the audience as the carolers, Felder introduces himself as the younger Irving Berlin, perhaps the most American of American composers and songwriters, and promises to share the backstory of his familiar and beloved songs.
By the end of the show he will be in that wheelchair, stooped and frail, having transformed himself into the 100-year-old Berlin.
It’s a clever conceit, and Felder uses it successfully to tell the astonishing life story of the renowned songwriter. It was a life filled with hardship and terrible loss as well as unimaginable success and worldwide fame. Throughout his long career, Berlin wrote an estimated 1,500 songs, the scores for 20 original Broadway shows and 15 original Hollywood films. Many of his songs, such as “White Christmas,” “Easter Parade,” “Happy Holidays,” and especially “God Bless America,” are more than songs; they are an integral part of American culture. As composer Jerome Kern said, “Irving Berlin has no part in American music, he is American music.” Berlin was a shrewd businessman too, buying up the rights to all his early songs as soon as he became a success.
Born in czarist Russia, Berlin arrived in the United States when he was 5 years old. He came with his mother, father, and siblings. They were very poor, like so many other immigrants at the time, and all the children went out to work, bringing their earnings home to contribute to the household. A cantor in Russia, Berlin’s father became a mashgiach in America, and his mother found work as a midwife. Irving, or Israel or Izzy, as he was called then, may have inherited some of his father’s musical talent. He had no formal training and never learned musical notation. All his composing was done in his head; as he sang his songs, assistants would write down the notes.
When Izzy was 13 his father died, and the boy soon left home to make it on his own. At first, he sang on street corners while selling newspapers, and eventually he graduated to becoming a singing waiter. Many of the popular songs at the turn of the century used ethnic terms we now consider slurs, but the immigrants themselves loved them. Berlin’s first published song was “Marie from Sunny Italy,” from which he earned 13 cents in royalties. In 1911, he wrote his first stupendous hit, “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.” He was 23 years old.
An accomplished pianist and respectable singer, Felder incorporates Berlin’s songs seamlessly into his script so they feel organic to the show. Encouraging the audience to sing along with the most popular songs, he underlines how deeply Berlin’s music is embedded in our culture. His comic timing is excellent as well, and he captures Berlin’s faintly Yiddishized New York accent.
Berlin’s first heartbreak came six months after he married Dorothy Goetz, when his young bride died of typhoid fever she caught on their honeymoon in Havana. That loss was followed by several others, the most painful of which must have been the death of his infant son, a child born to his second wife, the heiress Ellin Mackay. Fifteen years younger than Berlin, Mackay had ignored her family’s strenuous objections to marry the Jewish songwriter, and they were together for 62 years.
Felder has made a career of solo productions focusing on musical greats. His shows include “George Gershwin Alone”; “Monsieur Chopin”; “Maestro,” about Leonard Bernstein, and other shows about Franz Liszt, Beethoven, and Tchaikovsky.
Berlin was a great patriot and loved America with an immigrant’s passion. Felder accentuates Berlin’s immigrant past and the struggles that many immigrants face adapting to a new country. That’s surely not a coincidence at a time when many Americans are turning away from any celebration of the country’s immigrant history. Of course, they weren’t so welcoming when the millions of Jews and Italians and Irish arrived at the turn of the century, either. Now the descendants of those people feel they are the real Americans, somehow different from the Mexicans and Indians and Koreans arriving now. Berlin’s direct and sincere faith in the ideals of the country he embraced as his own poured out in many of his songs, and it is affecting and inspiring to hear them now.
“Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin” is at 59E59 Theatres through October 28.